The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does is the first edited volume to critically engage with Effective Altruism (EA). It brings together writers from diverse activist and scholarly backgrounds to explore a variety of unique grassroots movements and community organizing efforts. By drawing attention to these responses and to particular cases of human and animal harms, this book represents a powerful call to attend to different voices and projects and to elevate activist traditions that EA lacks the resources to assess and threatens to squelch. The contributors reveal the weakness inherent within the ready-made, top-down solutions that EA offers in response to many global problems-and offers in their place substantial descriptions of more meaningful and just social engagement.The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism, Oxford University Press (eds. Carol J Adams, Alice Crary, Lori Gruen)
1. Situating the project
There have been increasing calls from within the effective altruist community to incorporate insights from a broad range of methods, perspectives and approaches. For example, Holden Karnofsky, co-CEO of Open Philanthropy, writes:
I think it’s a bad idea to embrace the core ideas of EA without limits or reservations; we as EAs need to constantly inject pluralism and moderation. That’s a deep challenge for a community to have – a constant current that we need to swim against.
And a recent, highly-upvoted discussion on the EA Forum recommends:
I think the single most important thing the EA community could do to become more of a question, rather than an ideology, is to take concrete steps to interact more with, learn from, and collaborate with people outside of EA who seek to do good, without necessarily aiming to bring them into the community.
If these calls are on the right track, then it would be very valuable to have a volume of papers whose authors speak from a range of academic, political, demographic and policy backgrounds that are often underrepresented in effective altruism.
It would be even more valuable if those authors were to write directly about effective altruism, with a leading academic press, making an earnest attempt to engage with current practice in effective altruism in order to shed light on the benefits and dangers of some current strategies for doing the most good.
There is such a volume.
2. The good it promises, the harm it does
Carol J. Adams is an author, feminist and animal rights advocate. Her books include The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory, Animals and women: Feminist theoretical explorations, and The pornography of meat.
Lori Gruen is William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. Her books include Ecofeminism: Feminist intersections with other animals and the earth, Ethics of captivity, and Entangled empathy.
Adams, Crary and Gruen are the editors of a new anthology The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism with Oxford University Press. From the publisher:
The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does is the first edited volume to critically engage with Effective Altruism (EA). It brings together writers from diverse activist and scholarly backgrounds to explore a variety of unique grassroots movements and community organizing efforts. By drawing attention to these responses and to particular cases of human and animal harms, this book represents a powerful call to attend to different voices and projects and to elevate activist traditions that EA lacks the resources to assess and threatens to squelch. The contributors reveal the weakness inherent within the ready-made, top-down solutions that EA offers in response to many global problems-and offers in their place substantial descriptions of more meaningful and just social engagement.
I would encourage interested readers to buy the book: it is a great way to support an important project (the book is also remarkably affordable).
In this series, I will review some of the chapters from the book which I think contain important lessons about how effective altruism can go astray in its quest to do good, and how effective altruists might learn to do good better. Inevitably, I will have to skip over a number of insightful chapters, a fault which should not be blamed on the authors of those chapters but simply on the need to keep this series at a manageable length.
I’d like to start today by looking at the foreword of the book by Professor Amia Srinivasan. Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford. Srinivasan’s recent book, The right to sex, took the world by storm and has been widely recognized as a seminal contribution to feminist philosophy and public debates. In addition to her philosophical work, Srinivasan is a prolific public philosopher and the author of a prominent review of Will MacAskill’s first book, Doing Good Better, which many readers of this blog will be familiar with. Srinivasan has long expressed skepticism about some core practices and views in effective altruism, and her brief but poignant foreword combines the same richness and density of insight that readers of Srinivasan have come to expect.
3. Who speaks? Who listens?
Srinivasan begins her discussion with a range of probing questions:
What if Effective Altruism, whatever the intentions of its leaders and followers, systematically harmed those it promised to help, eroding democratic decision-making, creating perverse incentives, and reinforcing the very structures that produce the suffering it purports to target? What if Effective Altruism presupposed an impoverished conception of the good, and of the “reason” it seeks to harness for its promotion? What if effective altruism had the ideological function of buttressing systems of oppression, all the while reassuring its adherents – themselves very often beneficiaries of those systems – that they were morally unimpeachable?
Srinivasan motivates these questions by thinking carefully about who speaks in discussions of effective altruism, and who is listened to in those discussions. Srinivasan notes that effective altruists have often paid scant attention to a range of important perspectives which begin from engagement with marginalization and oppression:
These [above] are some of the questions raised when the story of Effective Altruism’s success is told not by its proponents, but by those engaged in liberation struggles and justice movements that operate outside Effective Altruism’s terms. These struggles, it must be said, long predate Effective Altruism, and it is striking that Effective Altruism has not found anything very worthwhile in them: in the historically deep and ongoing movements for the rights of working-class people, nonhuman animals, people of color, Indigenous people, women, incarcerated people, disabled people, and people living under colonial and authoritarian rule. For most Effective Altruists, these movements are, at best, examples of ineffective attempts to do good; negative examples from which to prescind or correct, not political formations from which to learn, with which to create coalition, or to join.
In this passage, Srinivasan notes that a wide range of perspectives have been largely ignored: perspectives such as feminism, disability and gender studies which have been among the most revolutionary and positive forces for change in contemporary society. Correspondingly, Srinivasan notes that a wide range of people have been systematically ignored, including indigenous people, incarcerated people, disabled people, and people living under colonial and authoritarian rule.
In a passage strikingly similar to recent discussions of race and gender in effective altruism, Srinivasan suggests that the limited range of people represented in effective altruism should be considered a serious problem for the movement: the contributors to the volume, in her words, “raise worries about the overwhelming whiteness, middle-classness, and maleness of the Effective Altruist community that many of its members are likely to think irrelevant to the assessment of Effective Altruism’s value.”
A lack of demographic diversity raises at least two concerns. First, ignoring people is connected to ignoring perspectives: the experiences we have shape the knowledge that we hold and the analytical frameworks which we use to make sense of the world. Selecting for homogenous groups of people tends to reduce the ability of a diverse range of perspectives to improve group decisionmaking.
Second, a lack of demographic diversity contributes to problems of inclusion and belonging within effective altruism. In many recent incidents, such as the Bostrom email and the community’s subsequent reaction, as well as more recent discussions around gender and sexual harassment within effective altruism, a common thread has been the inability of largely white, male readers to understand what is wrong with a range of wholly unacceptable behaviors. It is far too easy for members of a homogenous community to genuinely fail to understand the problem with discussion or defense of racist pseudoscience, or the dangers of revealing the names of vulnerable women whose identities were redacted in a magazine article about sexual abuse. This is another example of the connection between ignoring people and ignoring perspectives, since the wrongness of those behaviors is immediately visible to many members of more inclusive communities.
With the publication of this volume, voices from a range of perspectives and backgrounds are speaking directly to effective altruists. The question is whether effective altruists will listen. Srinivasan expresses guarded skepticism on this point:
There is every possibility … that Effective Altruists will ignore what these voices have to say — or fail to take the time to understand what their significance might be. That would be a deep shame, and what’s more, a betrayal of what I believe is a real commitment on the part of many Effective Altruists to bring about a better world.
Like Srinivasan, I think it is very important that Effective Altruists listen to the voices raised in this volume, and that listening carefully will help Effective Altruists to bring about a better world.
4. The institutional critique
In a thought-provoking passage, Srinivasan links effective altruists’ neglect of the perspectives of the oppressed to a fundamental conservatism within the movement:
This [neglect] … reveals Effective Altruism’s fundamental conservatism. The historically most significant social movements … have offered complex analyses of the interrelations between different structures of oppression: between, say, racial domination and capitalist exploitation; the plight of poor women of the Global South and the climate crisis; or neoliberalism, mass incarceration, and the assault on the dignity of people with disabilities. These social movements have also, at their best, shown us that another, radically different world might be possible – a world not just with less harm and suffering, but with substantially more freedom, democracy, and equality in all its guises – even as they articulate concrete programs for reform. These movements have pushed us to think about a world beyond, for example, capitalism, the gender binary, the nuclear family, prisons, and the nation-state. Effective altruism … calls us back from these exercises of radical political imagination. In so doing, Effective Altruism promises us a better world while implicitly encouraging us to accept the world more or less as it is.
This critique has been raised before, under the heading of the institutional critique of effective altruism. The institutional critique is a loose collection of criticisms raised by critics who think that effective altruism focuses too much on how individual actors, be they persons or institutions, can affect the world, and not enough on the background systems and institutions in which those actors operate. As Srinivasan notes, effective altruists are often highly reluctant to tackle the broader projects of systemic reform that movements such as socialism and feminism propose.
There is, as Srinivasan notes, a standard response to the institutional critique: read the commitments of effective altruism flexibly and minimally enough that they can capture nearly any case for systemic reform worth hearing. This allows effective altruists to claim that the institutional critique is not really a criticism of effective altruism, but instead just one more argumentative move within the effective altruist tradition:
Whenever criticisms such as these are put forward, Effective Altruists rush to reply that they only target Effective Altruism as it is currently implemented or practiced, not Effective Altruism “as such” or “in principle.” Indeed, Effective Altruists typically go on, since Effective Altruism is simply the idea that we should undertake to do good in the most effective ways possible, it might well turn out that Effective Altruism recommends that we should, say, engage in union organizing or join the Movement for Black Lives.
Neither Herzog’s nor Srinivasan’s arguments provide us with reasons to think that effective altruists cannot in principle endorse individuals devoting resources and/or time to efforts to promote institutional reform … It might turn out, for example, that the best available evidence suggests that at least some people can maximize the expected value … of their career choices by seeking political office and attempting to enact important policy change. Or it might be that the expected value of one’s devoting time to attempting to persuade others to join an activist cause promoting important institutional reforms is high enough that it is among the most effective ways that one might improve the world. In principle, we could produce at least a rough estimate of the expected value of an effort like this … This is, in fact, precisely the sort of investigation that effective altruists think ought to be done.
Brian Berkey, “The institutional critique of effective altruism“
There are, as Srinivasan notes, some limitations to this reply. But the most obvious, which to my knowledge has not been raised in the previous academic literature, is that the target of critique is not a set of broad philosophical commitments, but a flesh-and-blood movement complete with a range of practices, a growing portfolio of institutions, and a track record of action.
Political critique does not, and should not, merely address what social and political movements say about themselves. Political critique does, and should, also think about what social and political movements do: what effects they systematically bring about in the world, which structures they tend to reinforce, and which people they empower and which they silence. When movements fail to “do” what they “say,” it is not always just a matter of failed “implementation,” easily correctable through a doubling-down on the movement’s core principles. Sometimes, contradictions between what a movement “says” and “does” reveal something deep about how the movement practically works – and why it is successful. In turn, such revelations can tell us something about the limits of what such a movement can plausibly achieve.
In a shrewd nod to recent academic discussions of non-ideal political philosophy, Srinivasan notes that effective altruists’ background in analytic philosophy may be partly to blame, insofar as the analytic tradition has not always historically emphasized the robust kind of non-ideal theorizing needed to understand the gap between the principles and practice of movements such as effective altruism:
It is perhaps unsurprising that Effective Altruists do not recognize the force, or indeed form, of such arguments: do not recognize, that is, what it might even mean to think of Effective Altruism not just as a moral philosophy, but as a piece of ideology. Analytic philosophers as a whole, of whatever moral or political persuasion, tend to evaluate social and political movements according to what they say about themselves, as opposed to what they do in the world … As most students of political history, or practitioners of politics, will tell you, this is a politically disastrous way of thinking about political movements. Ideas have a life beyond what they say, which is partly why ideas matter so much.
Effective altruists may well be right that they have the intellectual resources, in principle, to be sympathetic to many of the perspectives contained in this book and many of the conclusions drawn from those perspectives. Indeed, my own theorizing begins from a largely similar theoretical perspective to that of many effective altruists, but seeks to show how effective altruists might use those perspectives to motivate radically different conclusions.
This suggests a novel, fascinating, and to my mind probably correct way to articulate the institutional critique. In principle, effective altruists may be able to say many things. In practice, they have said and done some things that they really should not have said or done. In particular, they have often neglected calls for systemic reform and the perspectives in which those calls are rooted. However, because effective altruists have the resources to make reasonably good sense of many of these complaints, there is every reason to think that effective altruists can use the resources in this book to become more sympathetic to calls for systemic change.
That is a bit more conciliatory than Srinivasan’s own view. But I really do want to emphasize, as Srinivasan and many others have emphasized, the possibility to use this book as an opportunity for positive change within the effective altruism movement.
Srinivasan’s foreword, like many other contributions to this volume, offers a rich and under-represented perspective on the challenges raised by effective altruism. In a few short pages, Srinivasan’s discussion revolutionizes our understanding of the institutional critique of effective altruism and also sheds light on the way that voices are heard or ignored within effective altruism.
I have to say that I am impressed by this contribution and by many of the other contributions to the volume that I have read so far. In the coming months, I will review more chapters. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the book and of Srinivasan’s discussion. What are the most important lessons that effective altruists might look to learn from this book? Which chapters seem the most interesting? And what else might we learn from Srinivasan’s discussion?